off the charts
POLICY INSIGHT
BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Restore SNAP for People With Drug-Related Convictions

| By Ed Bolen

President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan would eliminate the ban on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for people with drug-related felony convictions — part of a broader effort to reform punitive policies that prevent ex-offenders from fully reintegrating into society, without advancing public safety. Congress should adopt this proposal. Congress should also help people reentering the community get adequate food by eliminating the three-month SNAP time limit for unemployed adults.

A provision of the problematic 1996 welfare law permanently bars individuals convicted of drug-related felonies from SNAP unless the state rolls back the prohibition. An increasing number of states have recognized the short-sightedness of the ban and have modified or even eliminated it. But over 20 states still restrict access to SNAP for at least some people with drug felony convictions, and South Carolina still disqualifies these individuals for life.

Denying food assistance to people who have completed their sentences makes it harder for them to get back on their feet and may contribute to high rearrest rates, which are up to 50 percent for people with prior drug offenses. Given that formerly incarcerated people also face barriers and discrimination in employment and housing, it’s not surprising that 91 percent are food insecure. SNAP’s drug felon ban also disproportionately affects people of color, reflecting — and amplifying — the stark racial disparities in the criminal justice system, with impacts extending to these individuals’ children and other family members.

By lifting the ban nationwide, the American Families Plan would make major progress. But many people who would benefit could still be cut off SNAP after just three months due to a long-standing rule limiting SNAP benefits to three months for adults without a child in their household who can’t find at least half-time work. The cutoff is temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, but when in effect, it affects most unemployed workers without kids even if they’re looking for work or working less than 20 hours a week. And, like the drug felony ban, it disproportionately affects people of color.

Many people reentering the community after incarceration face barriers to economic security. Up to half may remain unemployed for as long as a year after their release. Many can only get low-paying, insecure jobs with frequent periods of unemployment and high turnover.

Instead of encouraging a safe and stable transition for returning citizens, the drug felony ban and three-month cutoff take away needed food assistance from one of the most vulnerable and needy populations. Rolling back both of these harmful rules would be an important step toward ensuring stable, adequate access to food for individuals returning to society.